Announcing German Literature Month 2019

2019 is a significant year in terms of German history, both actual and literary. It’s

  • 30 years since the Fall of the Wall;
  • 100 years since the Founding of the Weimar Republic; and
  • 200 years since publication of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan.

Lizzy and I have decided to include all of the above into the plan for GLM IX!

To commemorate The Fall of the Wall there will be an ex-DDR week. For the founding of the Weimar Republic, the badge has been converted to Bauhaus-favoured sans serif typography and we will host a readalong of Alfred Döblin’s seminal Berlin Alexanderplatz. Last, but definitely not least, there will be a Goethe Reading Week.

There will also be plenty of read-as-you-please time so you can choose from the whole gamut of German-language literary pleasures (writing from outside Germany, historical and crime fiction, graphic novels, etc) entirely according to your heart’s desire.

The reading schedule looks like this:

01-02.11.19 Read as You please
03-09.11.19 Ex-DDR week
10-16.11.19 Read as You Please
17-23.11.19 Goethe Reading Week
24-30.11.19 Read as You Please

 

The Berlin Alexanderplatz readalong will take place on 4 Saturdays commencing on 9.11. More details and sign-up post to follow shortly.

As always, to participate in German Literature Month you can stick to the plan, pick and choose only the parts that interest you, or follow your own path entirely. You can read in any language you want. The only rule is that whatever you read must have originally been published in German.

All that remains now, is for you to search through your shelves, your library catalogues or maybe undertake a shopping expedition! German Literature Month IX will be here before you know it! Will you join us?


 

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (1970)

Muriel Spark is one of those authors that’s hit or miss for me. I liked the first two books I’ve read (pre-blogging) – Girls of Slender Meansand The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Especially the first was a favourite the year I read it. The next one I picked was Territorial Rights– you can find my review here – and it was the first I really didn’t like. And now The Driver’s Seat is the second. I know it’s a favourite of many people, but I found it cold, sly, and just didn’t like the way it was told. Yes, it has amazing moments and I enjoyed some of the slyness but overall, it’s not my thing. That said, I can see why someone would like it, as it’s quite whacky and the writing is strong.

The book starts with Lise looking for the perfect dress. When  she is told by a salesperson that the one she’s been trying on doesn’t stain because it’s made of a special fabric, Lise loses it completely. From that moment on the reader knows that something’s very wrong with Lise. Two pages after this intro we find this passage, and it’s an excellent example of Spark’s slyness – and cleverness.

Her lips are slightly parted: she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually, except for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say, for sixteen years and some months. Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and judging mouth, a precision instrument.

As a reader we’re so fascinated by the description of Lise, that we might overread the little aside about her illness. We sympathize with someone who’s spent her youth at an office she clearly doesn’t like, doing a boring, tedious job. We also sympathize with her wish to organize the perfect holiday, down to the perfect holiday attire. But then we see her in action, see how she reacts to people, talks to people and how she chooses a garish outfit that will make her look like a cross between a striped lollipop and an old-fashioned prostitute. So clearly, the illness is very important and it’s easy to see what kind of illness that might have been.

From the beginning of the novel we know what will happen to Lise. We’re informed by the narrator who, at times stays a pure observer, but, then again, becomes omniscient and foreshadows or reveals the outcome of the book. Lise will get into trouble. She will be found murdered. This isn’t a spoiler, as it’s revealed early on. Just after the narrator has dropped that bomb on us, he/she retreats and describes his creature from outside.

I was keen to find out, what went wrong and how Lise got herself killed. The end is surprising and echoes that first passage I quoted above.

So, there’s humour here, there’s an oddly fascinating character who plays roles, speaks in many different accents, does a lot of very outlandish thing, and courts danger. So, you may wonder – what’s not to like?

It was the tone of the book. I’m usually fond of characters behaving so wildly. But I didn’t care for the way Spark described “her creature”, like a scientist who describes a butterfly he’s just spiked. At times it is humorous. We’ve all seen people behave strangely. Because they were drunk or because they were crazy or just eccentrics and that can be very entertaining. But watching them like this also lacks empathy. It’s unkind and cold. Territorial Rights had a similar tone, similar slyness. Those who love Spark will say, yes, but that tone is exactly the point. I’m sure it is, but it’s too cold for me. That said, I will read her again because she’s a clever writer and says a lot about many themes – gender relations, things that we’re topical at the time like macrobiotic food, the way society reacts when someone doesn’t fit in. And I like how she disobeys many of the writing rules that are usually taught in writing classes these days.

To do this book justice, which I feel, I might not have done, I leave you with two quotes that show how strong Sparks’ writing is.  One quote is from a very humorous scene. The other one is one of those short things Lise says that reveal more than whole passages in other books.

The chandeliers of the Metropole, dispensing a vivid glow upon the just and unjust alike, disclose Bill the macrobiotic seated gloomily by a table near the entrance. He jumps up when Lise enters and falls upon her with a delight that impresses the whole lobby, and in such haste that a plastic bag he is clutching, insufficiently sealed, emits a small trail of wild rice in his progress towards her.

And here’s Lise. This is another “sly” quote as we suddenly get a look into Lise’s state of mind that’s more telling than most of what she does.

“It makes me sad”, she says. “I want to go home, I think. I want to go back home and feel all that lonely grief again. I miss it so much already.”

Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson (1931)

Feeling a little under the weather a couple of weeks ago, I decided I needed something to cheer me up. E. F. Benson’s much-loved novel Mapp and Lucia seemed an excellent choice. I didn’t expect to have such a peculiar reading experience though. Mapp and Lucia has been on my piles for ages and ever since I got it, I saw people mention it as a novel they loved. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was planning to read it, the reactions were enthusiastic. Logically, I was sure, I would love it but for the first hundred pages I did not only not love it, I almost hated it. And then, I still don’t know why, I started to like it so much, that I still miss reading it. I believe that’s what some people call a book hangover.

At the beginning of the novel, we find Lucia and her best-friend Georgie, still in Riseholm, where Lucia owns the most beautiful house and occupies the centre of the social life. That is, she did before her husband died. While he’s been dead for over a year, Lucia felt it was her duty to still live like a recluse. But enough is enough and she’s planning to re-enter Riseholm’s social life and be its queen again. Georgie who missed her shenanigans, is happy that she’s finally back. We’re led to believe that her mourning was only in part real, a lot of it was just for show. And so are most things with Lucia. She does and says so much just for show and to grab the attention of the people around her. One of the funniest things she does for show, is pretending that she speaks Italian. She addresses Georgie, and other people, constantly with little Italian sentences and phrases, exclaims her joy or distaste in Italian morsels. The people of Riseholm and Tilling admire and envy her for that.

After reclaiming the Riseholm stage, Lucia is soon bored and wishes to conquer new territory. She decides to rent Mallard, the most beautiful house in Tilling. The house belongs to Miss Mapp, the centre of Tilling’s social life. Just like Lucia, she’s an attention-grabber, self-centred to the max, and never shies away from thinking about her own advantage. It’s the custom amongst the Tilling upper middle-class to sublet their homes in summer. Mallard being the most expensive one, it’s rented to foreigners; the next in line, Diva’s house, is taken by Miss Mapp. Diva rents someone else’s, and so on. Luckily for Lucia, Georgie decides to rent Mallard cottage and join her for the summer. He will prove, once more, to be her most ardent ally.

At first, things are amicable enough, but soon Lucia isn’t satisfied anymore and wants to become the centre of Tilling. Things are a bit different here though. While there was no real competition for her in Riseholm, there’s formidable Miss Mapp in Tilling to be reckoned with. She’s the most important person in Tilling and there’s nothing that she doesn’t preside over, nothing she doesn’t decide, much to the annoyance of some of the other inhabitants of Tilling. Lucia might always have wanted to become Tilling’s most influential person, but having competition spurs her on even more. In Miss Mapp, she’s found her match. While things don’t often turn out the way Miss Mapp has planned, she still wins more than one small skirmish in this war.

As I said, initially, I hated the book because I found the characters obnoxious and nasty. But once the reader gets to see behind Lucia’s mask and Miss Mapp defeats her more than once, it’s more and more enjoyable.

And there’s life at Tilling. A carefree life that’s so different from most of our lives nowadays. Not only because it’s set before WWII, but because it’s set among the British upper middleclass. Nobody works in this book. All the main characters own beautiful houses. All they think about is, where they will dine next, who gives the best tea party. Gossip and petty quarrels aside, it’s a peaceful world. The conflicts are entirely the character’s own making. Nothing dramatic ever comes from outside. At least not until the end. After a while, I found spending time in this world very comforting. And funny. It’s a terrific social comedy. Lucia’s pretence to know Italian is hilarious and so is the way they constantly try to outsmart each other.

When I got the book, I wasn’t aware that it was part of a series, and not even the first in the series, but the fourth. Luckily, it works very well as a stand-alone. As far as I know, this is the first of these books that feature both Lucia and Miss Mapp.

Has anyone read other books in this series? Are they just as good?

Will and Testament (Arv og miljø) by Vigdis Hjorth (2016) – Norwegian Literature

From the blurb: “Four siblings. Two summer houses. One terrible secret. To what degree should the horrors of the past be allowed to shake the present? Stalked by the darkest of shadows from her childhood, a woman struggles against the tide dragging her back to the family she fled years ago. This emotionally searing novel is at once a wrenching look at a family fractured and a meditation on the nature of trauma and memory.”

Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth’s is very well known in her home country. She has written over twelve novels and won many prestigious Scandinavian prizes. I came across her name in a Swiss newspaper where she was mentioned as one of Norway’s most notable authors. Since it’s still Women in Translation Month, I thought she’d be a good choice. 

Will and Testament was a huge success in Norway, and I can see why. It’s highly literary but nonetheless as captivating as a thriller. The plot is moving back and forth in time, slowly revealing the dark secrets at the heart of the dysfunctional family depicted in the novel.

Bergljot, our fifty-something first-person narrator, hasn’t seen her parents for twenty-three years, when she’s informed that her father has died. Already before his death, her siblings tried to involve her in their dispute about their parent’s will. Even though, their parents had promised, they would evenly divide their possessions among the four siblings, they clearly changed their mind as the two coveted holiday homes on the Norwegian seaside go to Bergljot’s younger sisters. Bergljot’s older brother is very upset about this and tries to convince Bergljot to take his side. While she too, is sad that her children won’t have the opportunity to spend their summers in one of the homes, she understands why her parents decided to act as they did. After their father’s death, the discussion is renewed and gets even more heated.

Jumping back and forth in time, Bergljot tells the story of her life and reveals, bit by bit, why she chose to break with her parents. When the two younger sisters were only babies, but the older ones seven and ten respectively, something terrible happened. Something that both parents wished the children had forgotten. Unfortunately, Bergljot’s’ turbulent love life leads her start a therapy and, so, the distant memory resurfaces. She confronts her parents, but they both deny anything has happened. To keep her own sanity, she breaks with them.

The secret, which is finally revealed, isn’t very surprising. Most readers will guess it from the beginning. And if that was all the book had to offer, I wouldn’t have been as impressed with it as I was. But it has so much more to offer. The character portraits, especially those of Bergljot and her mother are fantastic. The mother is one of those crazy, dysfunctional, larger-than-life mothers that populate so many books about dysfunctional families. For me she was especially chilling because she did and said a few things that sounded so much like my own mother that it made me shiver. She doesn’t live her life, she performs it. She lies and manipulates, is cruel and mean and distorts the truth to her own advantage.

The book reveals the intricate family dynamics in a truly admirable way. It also shows that when there are several siblings, each one of them might see the parents completely differently, have a totally different relationship with them. In Will and Testament it’s Bergljot’s tragedy, that her parents know very well that they treated Bergljot and her brother badly. Because they knew this and because they wanted to repress the memories, they treated the younger girls differently. By the time Bergljot accuses her parents, and drops the bomb, as she says, the younger sisters are firmly on the parent’s side.

I can imagine how painful it must be, to see a repressed memory resurface and then be told, you made it up. I could imagine that, for the longest time, one would doubt oneself. The reasons why Bergljot knows she’s remembering correctly is because she’s so damaged. She drinks far too much, falls for the wrong men. But she’s a terrific mother and her children are behind her all the time. Not for one second do they doubt her.

It took me a few pages to get into this book because it isn’t told chronologically, but once I got the structure, I liked it very much. I was impressed by the intricate way the family dynamics are described and by the subtle psychological insights. And while some of it is dark, it’s never depressing. Bergljot may be damaged but she’s true to herself and courageous. It’s not easy to face a hostile family front.

Will and Testament will be out in English in September. If you like stories about dysfunctional families, you shouldn’t miss this.

The Radetzky March Readalong – Part 3

 

SPOILER WARNING – The answers and questions give away important plot points

There seems to be only one true and honest relationship in this novel—the friendship between district administrator  von Trotta and doctor Skowronnek. Would you agree? What did you think of their relationship?

Until the moment when von Trotta and Skowronnek meet, the coldness of most of the relationships is quite disturbing. The way von Trotta treated his son is one of the examples that struck me. There was no warmth, no real interest, no understanding or empathy. That changes when von Trotta meets Skowronnek. It’s an almost magical encounter and I wasn’t surprised to see Roth compare it to love at first sight in calling it friendship at first sight. For the first time in his life, von Trotta changes and opens up and, also for the first time, begins to show some feelings towards his son. Skowronnek is a true catalyst.

Do you think the novel would have taken another turn, had Carl Joseph opened his father’s letter?

I’d like to think so but it’s not impossible that it wouldn’t because Carl Joseph, at that particular time, was beyond the point of no-return. Things had to get worse before they could get better, as is often the case with alcoholics or gamblers.

What is the significance of the regimental party at Chojnicki’s country house?

It was my favourite chapter by far. It contains everything that’s great about this book – the irony, the absurdity, the evocative descriptions of the weather, that underlines the looming catastrophe. The party shows what the life for the upper classes was all about at the time. And knowing this will be the last time that they will celebrate in this way, is eerie. The last moment of glory of a dying world.

Chapter 21 takes us to the Eastern front.  What do you think about the way Roth depicts the conflict? How do you feel about the manner of Carl Joseph’s death?

In many ways, what Carl Joseph did was more heroic than what his grandfather did. His grandfather didn’t even get the time to think about what he was doing, while Carl Joseph was fully conscious of the risk. Of course, he was also tired of living and the consequences may not have been important for him. And, yes, he didn’t save a life but he was willing to help others.

What struck me the most in this chapter, is that we get a feeling for how vast the empire was. How many people were part of it.

I did add this map before, but I think it’s well worth adding it again here.

Did you find the ending satisfying?

Absolutely. I didn’t expect it to end with Skowronnek and found that very hopeful. He’s the only truly likable character because he has warmth and empathy and doesn’t care about conventions. He’s also capable of true friendship. To end with him, showing us how he moves on, is both hopeful and sad. I’d like to think of him as a man of a new era. A bit like Chojnicki but without being jaded or spoilt through incredible wealth. His relationship to money is very telling too. He doesn’t give because he has too much like Chojnicki but because he wants to help a friend.

The Radetzky March has been described as a nostalgic novel for a lost empire.  Is nostalgic the adjective you’d use?

I didn’t find it nostalgic. The only slightly nostalgic chapter was the party at Chojnicki’s but it’s too full of irony to be truly nostalgic. Possibly the only nostalgic element was the epilogue, in which we see Skowronnek playing chess on his own.

What struck you the most in this novel, what do you like or dislike the most?

I’ve read it before, ages ago, and the one thing I didn’t remember and that struck the most now, was how male-dominated it was. And the way women are portrayed. They are all either dead/dying or unfaithful, sometimes both. If he’d wanted to include more female characters, I think, he would have had to write a much longer novel. All the other novels about the end of an era that come to mind, are larger canvases that include more female characters.

Would you reread The Radetzky March?

Given the state of my piles, I don’t think so but it’s not entirely impossible. It’s such a complex book that would deserve to be reread.

******

I’d like to thank everyone who participated. Lizzy and I truly appreciate it. Thank you all for your enthusiasm and your insighful comments and posts. I’ll try to visit those I’ve missed.

The Radetzky March Readalong – Part 2

 

SPOILER WARNING – The answers and questions give away important plot points

Are there characters you like or dislike particularly so far?

While I find all of the characters very interesting and wonderfully drawn, there isn’t any character I particularly like. I feel sorry for many of them, but I don’t think they are particularly likable, possibly with the exception of Chojnicki. I loved the way he spoke about the Kaiser, calling him by hist first name. Was it out of lack of respect? Possibly, but also, I think because he felt that the end of the monarchy was approaching and, rightly so.

What does the old servant Jacques and his death stand for?

There are so many scenes in this book that signify or announce the end of an era but Jacques also announces the end of the von Trottas. He’s the only one who knew the hero of Solferino and with him, this man who has almost been forgotten, through his own doing, is sinking even further into oblivion. The whole death scene was particularly well done and used to great effect. Like the monarchy, he doesn’t die quickly but seems to go back to new life and then dies anyway. A book that’s so heavily preoccupied with death and dying had to have an extended death scene.

In many ways Chojnicki is the opposite of Jacques. What did you think of him?

I mentioned him earlier as one of the few characters I really liked. A modern man, very rich but not in a greedy kind of way. He’s always willing to share and give his money to those who need it. He seems to mind his own business more than anything else. He is alert and curious, also generous and free of self-importance, a typical trait of many of the other characters.

What do you make of this quote?

“I haven’t forgotten him,” said the lieutenant, “I always thought of that painting. I’m not strong enough for this painting. The dead! I can’t forget the dead! Father, I can’t forget anything. Father!”

I felt sorry for Carl Joseph from the beginning of the book, when his first lover, Frau Slama dies. Death got a hold of him and never let go. Although he thinks he’s found new life, with Frau von Taussig, the reader can sense it will be short-lived.

What do you think of Roth’s style so far?

I think I remembered his style differently. As Andrew said in his post on the first part, it feels much more like a 19th century novel. No modernist approaches. Maybe others feel differently, but I don’t think he’s a great stylist. His strengths are characterisation and descriptions. He’s more interested in psychology than beautiful language or original ways to say things.

Were you surprised to find the last chapter of part 2 told from the point of view of Kaiser Franz Josef? How effective did you find it?

I thought it was a great idea and worked very well. It showed the Kaiser as a human being, something people at the time possibly tended to forget. In people’s views he was almost God-like. The chapter shows how isolating this must have been. Most of the time, he had to play a role. Only when he was alone, at night, could he express his true self.

Do you have favorite quotes? Please share them and tell us why you like them.

I have so many favourite quotes but because I read the book in German, I won’t share them. I’m still not feeling well enough to embark on any translations.

When he meets Frau von Taussig, Carl Josef feels like he’s happy for the first time? Do you think that’s true? How do you think of her and their relationship?

Frau von Taussig is a great character. Silly and touching at the same time. But also selfish and self-involved. The way Roth introduced her, with only a remark at first, at the end of one chapter, told the reader she’s trouble. I don’t think she cares about Carl Joseph. One gets the feeling it could have been any young lieutenant. There’s no attempt to understand or get to know him. And so, in the end, she treats Carl Joseph like every one else does. Just a player in play that has lost its meaning. A bit like the Kaiser. Carl Joseph is as lonely and desperate as before, and possibly, without his knowing, worse off than before he met her.

How do you feel about the descriptions of alcoholism in this section?

It’s a chilling description of alcoholism and feels very realistic. Sadly, Roth knew what he was writing about and the reader can sense that.

The Radetzky March Readalong – Part 1

 

SPOILER WARNING – The answers and questions give away important plot points

 

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of Joseph Roth’s more famous novel, The Radetzky March.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

I’ve read the book ages ago, in school, however, because we started it towards the end of a semester, we never finished it and because we were moving on to other books, I also never finished it for myself. Although more than one book has been spoilt because I read it in the class room, this one wasn’t. I really loved it, just never found the time to get back to it. The longer I waited, the clearer it became, that I couldn’t just read the final chapters but had to start from the beginning.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

I’m reading it in the German original. A paperback edition. Unfortunately it is one of those without any introduction or notes. This is decidedly one of those books where notes would have come in handy.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?

It’s in many ways much better than I remembered it. I don’t think I caught how intertwined the themes of death, dying, and the end of an era were. I also didn’t remember how much it focussed on one person and how male-dominated it was.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family.  Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino.  He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title.  Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

I found this very typical for its time, but a bit clunky for a contemporary reader. It’s vital information, of course. It also works as foreshadowing of many of the themes, especially the last sentence. It’s just not the kind of beginning that invites you with open arms, so to speak.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”.  That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same! How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?

I got where he was coming from. I didn’t think he ever saw himself as particularly heroic and the way what he did was described in the school book made him seem even more heroic. On the other hand, his behaviour is typical of the older Trotta’s. They are such a strict, pedantic, joyless lot. And it seemed like he didn’t feel he was deserving of his title.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military.  Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?

I was wondering while reading these chapters and came to the conclusion that the relationship possibly was innocent. Roth mentions physical contact when it happens but he doesn’t mention it here. I could be wrong, of course, but it would make Demant’s death even more tragic.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance.  How does Roth critique these?

I think the duel and subsequent death of two officers shows very well how Roth felt about the code of honour. The whole story is absurd and so is the outcome. It doesn’t even matter, whether or not Trotta and Demant’s wife were having an affair. One has also the feeling Demant doesn’t even do it because of his pride, but because he thinks he has to. I’ve come across other duels in novels and they are always used as a means to show how cruel the code of honour was. But I don’t think I’ve ever come across one with quite that outcome. The double death makes it even more cruel and absurd.

Do you have any further comments on this section?

What struck me the most in this section was Carl Joseph’s reaction to Mme Slama’s death. It’s almost as if it hit his core and he wasn’t the same from then on. He immediately associated her death with the decay of her body. I suspect, although I have no proof whatsoever, that this is rather how Roth felt about death. The images of worms eating decaying bodies is recurring. Obviously, it also echoes the death of the monarchy. As a reaction of such a young man, it seemed extreme, but her death could also have triggered an underlying depression, which became aparent in these morbid thoughts.